Mistaken for the father of his twin brother's child, Liam Wade takes in his fussy infant niece and needs a nanny fast. Hadley Stratton knows all about Liam's reputation with the ladies, and really doesn't believe that the baby isn't his! But as she settles into her role, she begins to see the man beneath the Stetson. And when they're stranded together during a storm, she really gets to know him. Is she just the latest woman to fall for Liam's charms, or are this rich rancher's single days numbered?
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Shortly after the 6:00 a.m. feeding, Liam Wade strode through the barn housing the yearling colts and fillies, enjoying the peaceful crunching of hay and the occasional equine snort. It was January 1, and because of the way horses were classified for racing and showing purposes, regardless of their calendar age, every horse in every stall on the ranch was now officially a year older.
Dawn of New Year's Day had never been a time of reflection for Liam. Usually he was facedown in a beautiful woman's bed, sleeping like the dead after an evening of partying and great sex. Last year that had changed. He'd left the New Year's Eve party alone.
His cell phone buzzed in his back pocket, and he pulled it out. The message from his housekeeper made him frown.
There's a woman at the house who needs to speak to you.
Liam couldn't imagine what sort of trouble had come knocking on his door this morning. He texted back that he was on his way and retraced his steps to his Range Rover.
As he drove up, he saw an unfamiliar gray Ford Fusion in the driveway near the large Victorian house Liam's great-great-grandfather had built during the last days of the nineteenth century. Liam and his twin brother, Kyle, had grown up in this seven-bedroom home, raised by their grandfather after their mother headed to Dallas to create her real estate empire.
Liam parked and turned off the engine. A sense of foreboding raised the hair on his arms, and he wondered at his reluctance to get out of the truck. He'd enjoyed how peaceful the last year had been. A strange woman showing up at the crack of dawn could only mean trouble.
Slipping from behind the wheel, Liam trotted across the drought-dry lawn and up the five steps that led to the wraparound porch. The stained glass windows set into the double doors allowed light to filter into the wide entry hall, but prevented him from seeing inside. Thus, it wasn't until Liam pushed open the door that he saw the infant car seat off to one side of the hall. As that was registering, a baby began to wail from the direction of the living room.
The tableau awaiting him in the high-ceilinged room was definitely the last thing he'd expected. Candace, his housekeeper, held a squalling infant and was obviously trying to block the departure of a stylish woman in her late fifties.
"Liam will be here any second," Candace was saying. With her focus split between the child and the blonde woman in the plum wool coat, his housekeeper hadn't noticed his arrival.
"What's going on?" Liam questioned, raising his voice slightly to be heard above the unhappy baby.
The relief on Candace's face was clear. "This is Diane Garner. She's here about her granddaughter."
"You're Liam Wade?" the woman demanded, her tone an accusation.
"Yes." Liam was completely bewildered by her hostility. He didn't recognize her name or her face.
"My daughter is dead."
"I'm very sorry to hear that."
"She was on her way to see you when she went into labor and lost control of her car. The doctors were unable to save her."
"That's very tragic." Liam wasn't sure what else to say. The name Garner rang no bells. "Did she and I have an appointment about something?"
Diane stiffened. "An appointment?"
"What was your daughter's name?"
"Margaret Garner. You met her in San Antonio." Diane grew more agitated with each word she uttered. "You can't expect me to believe you don't remember."
"I'm sorry," Liam said, pitching his voice to calm the woman. She reminded him of a high-strung mare. "It's been a while since I've been there."
"It's been eight months," Diane said. "Surely you couldn't have forgotten my daughter in such a short period of time."
Liam opened his mouth to explain that he wasn't anywhere near San Antonio eight months ago when it hit him what the woman was implying. He turned and stared at the baby Candace held.
"You think the baby's mine?"
"Her name is Maggie and I know she's yours."
Liam almost laughed. This was one child he knew without question wasn't his. He'd been celibate since last New Year's Eve. "I assure you that's not true."
Diane pursed her lips. "I came here thinking you'd do the right thing by Maggie. She's your child. There's no question that you had an affair with my daughter."
He wasn't proud of the fact that during his twenties, he'd probably slept with a few women without knowing their last name or much more about them other than that they were sexy and willing. But he'd been careful, and not one of them had shown up on his doorstep pregnant.
"If I had an affair with your daughter, it was a long time ago, and this child is not mine."
"I have pictures that prove otherwise." Diane pulled a phone out of her purse and swiped at the screen. "These are you and my daughter. The date stamp puts them at eight months ago in San Antonio. Are you going to deny that's you?"
The screen showed a very pretty woman with blond hair and bright blue eyes, laughing as she kissed the cheek of a very familiar-looking face. Kyle's. A baseball cap hid his short hair, but the lack of a scar on his chin left no doubt it was Kyle and not Liam in the picture.
"I realize that looks like me, but I have a twin brother." Liam was still grappling with seeing his brother looking so happy when Diane Garner slipped past him and headed toward the entry. "But even so, that doesn't mean the baby is a Wade."
Diane paused with her hand on the front doorknob. Her eyes blazed. "Margaret dated very infrequently, and she certainly didn't sleep around. I can tell from the pictures that she really fell for you."
Either Diane hadn't heard Liam when he explained that he had a twin or she saw this as an excuse. While he grappled for a way to get through to the woman, she yanked the door open and exited the house.
Stunned, Liam stared after her. He was ready to concede that the child might be a Wade. A DNA test would confirm that quickly enough, but then what? Kyle was on active duty in the military and not in a position to take on the responsibility of an infant.
The baby's cries escalated, interrupting his train of thought. He turned to where Candace rocked the baby in an effort to calm her and realized Diane Garner intended to leave her granddaughter behind. Liam chased after the older woman and caught her car door before she could close it.
"Are you leaving the baby?"
"Margaret was on her way to see you. I think she meant to either give you Maggie or get your permission to give her up. There were blank forms to that effect in her car."
"She never wanted to have children of her own." Diane's voice shook. "And I know she wouldn't have been able to raise one by herself."
"What happens if I refuse?"
"I'll turn her over to child services."
"But you're the child's grandmother. Couldn't you just take care of her until we can get a DNA test performed and "
"Because of health issues, I'm not in a position to take care of her. You're Maggie's father," Diane insisted. "She belongs with you."
She belonged with her father. Unfortunately, with Kyle on active duty, could he care for a baby? Did he even want to? Liam had no ideait had been two years since he'd last spoken with Kyle. But if the child was a Wadeand Liam wasn't going to turn the child out until he knew one way or anotherthat meant she belonged here.
"How do I get in contact with you?" Liam asked. Surely the woman would want some news of her grandchild?
"I gave my contact info to your housekeeper." The older woman looked both shaken and determined. "Take good care of Maggie. She's all I have left." And with more haste than grace, Diane pulled her car door shut and started the engine.
As the gray car backed down the driveway, Liam considered the decision his own mother had made, leaving him and Kyle with her father to raise while she went off to the life she wanted in Dallas. He'd never really felt a hole in his life at her absence. Their grandfather had been an ideal blend of tough and affectionate. No reason to think that Maggie wouldn't do just as well without her mother.
He returned to the house. Candace was in the kitchen warming a bottle of formula. The baby continued to showcase an impressive set of lungs. His housekeeper shot him a concerned glance.
"You let her go?" Candace rocked the baby.
"What was I supposed to do?"
"Convince her to take the baby with her?" She didn't sound all that certain. "You and I both know she isn't yours."
"You sound pretty sure about that."
Liam gave her a crooked smile. Candace had started working for him seven years ago when the former housekeeper retired. Diane Garner wasn't the first woman to show up unexpected and uninvited on his doorstep, although she was the first one to arrive with a baby.
"You've been different this last year." Candace eyed him. "More settled."
She'd never asked what had prompted his overnight transformation from carefree playboy to responsible businessman. Maybe she figured with his thirtieth birthday he'd decided to leave his freewheeling days behind him. That was part of the truth, but not all.
"I've been living like a monk."
She grinned. "That, too."
"What am I supposed to do with a baby?" He eyed the red-faced infant with her wispy blond hair and unfocused blue eyes. "Why won't she stop crying?"
"She's not wet so I'm assuming she's hungry." Or maybe she just wants her mother. Candace didn't say the words, but the thought was written all over her face. "Can you hold her while I get her bottle ready?"
"I'd rather not."
"She won't break."
The child looked impossibly small in Candace's arms. Liam shook his head. "Tell me what to do to get a bottle ready."
The noise in the kitchen abated while the baby sucked greedily at her bottle. Liam made the most of this respite and contacted a local company that specialized in placing nannies. Since it wasn't quite seven in the morning, he was forced to leave a message and could only hope that he'd impressed the owners with the urgency of his need. That done, he set about creating a list of things that baby Maggie would need.
Hadley Stratton took her foot off the accelerator and let her SUV coast down the last thirty feet of driveway. An enormous Victorian mansion loomed before her, white siding and navy trim giving it the look of a graceful dowager in the rugged West Texas landscape.
The drive from her apartment in Royal had taken her fifteen minutes. Although a much shorter commute than her last job in Pine Valley, Hadley had reservations about taking the nanny position. Liam Wade had a playboy reputation, which made this the exact sort of situation she avoided. If he hadn't offered a salary at the top of her range and promised a sizable bonus if she started immediately, she would have refused when the agency called. But with student loans hanging over her head and the completion of her master's degree six short months away, Hadley knew she'd be a fool to turn down the money.
Besides, she'd learned her lesson when it came to attractive, eligible bosses. There would be no repeat of the mistake she'd made with Noah Heston, the divorced father of three who'd gone back to his ex-wife after enticing Hadley to fall in love with him.
Parking her SUV, Hadley headed for the front door and rang the bell. Inside a baby cried, and Hadley's agitation rose. She knew very little about the situation she was walking into. Only that Liam Wade had a sudden and urgent need for someone to care for an infant.
A shadow darkened the stained glass inset in the double door. When Hadley's pulse quickened, she suspected this was a mistake. For the last hour she'd been telling herself that Liam Wade was just like any other employer. Sure, the man was a world-class horseman and sexy as hell. Yes, she'd had a crush on him ten years ago, but so had most of the other teenage girls who barrel raced.
A decade had gone by. She was no longer a silly fangirl, but a mature, intelligent, professional nanny who knew the risks of getting emotionally wrapped up in her charges or their handsome fathers.
"Good morning, Mr. Wade." She spoke crisply as the door began to open. "Royal Nannies sent me. My name is"
"Hadley " His bottle-green eyes scanned her face.
"Hadley Stratton." Had he remembered her? No, of course not. "Stratton." She cleared her throat and tried not to sound as if her heart was racing. Of course he knew who she was; obviously the agency had let him know who they were sending. "I'm Hadley Stratton." She clamped her lips together and stopped repeating her name.
"You're a nanny?" He executed a quick but thorough assessment of her and frowned.
"Well, yes." Maybe he expected someone older. "I have my résumé and references if you'd like to look them over." She reached into her tote and pulled out a file.
"No need." He stepped back and gestured her inside. "Maggie's in the living room." He shut the door behind her and grimaced. "Just follow the noise."
Hadley didn't realize that she'd expected the baby's mother to be ridiculously young, beautiful and disinterested in motherhood until she spied the woman holding the child. In her late forties, she was wearing jeans, a flannel shirt and sneakers, her disheveled dark hair in a messy bun.
"Hadley Stratton. Candace Tolliver, my housekeeper."
Liam cast a fond grin at the older woman. "Who is very glad you've come so quickly."
Candace had the worn look of a first-time mother with a fussy baby. Even before the introductions were completed, she extended the baby toward Hadley. "I've fed her and changed her. She won't stop crying."
"What is her normal routine?" Hadley rocked and studied the tiny infant, wondering what had become of the child's mother. Smaller than the average newborn by a few pounds. Was that due to her mother's unhealthy nutritional habits while pregnant or something more serious?
"We don't know." Candace glanced toward Liam. "She only just arrived. Excuse me." She exited the room as if there were something burning in the kitchen.
"These are her medical records." Liam gestured toward a file on the coffee table. "Although she was premature, she checked out fine."
"How premature?" She slipped her pinkie between the infant's lips, hoping the little girl would try sucking and calm down. "Does she have a pacifier?"
Liam spoke up. "No."